As a parent and an educator I wonder about the moral health of today’s kids. I love them and I enjoy them, but so many children have encountered situations and circumstances beyond their age and level of understanding that it is frightening. With movies and television filled with suggestive words and actions and abrasive language that addles my ears or video games filled with violent acts against people, animals, and a multitude of inanimate objects, I wonder where sensitivity is headed. Will we become a system of automatons with our morals stunted based on a lack of personal love and a sense of interconnectedness with people, nature, and the Universe itself?
In several schools that I have visited, reading walls adorn the hallway. When a child reads 10 or 20 or 100 books, his/her name goes up and then paces along the wall throughout the year to reach a stellar reading goal. While encouraging kids to read, I also know that this process also encourages kids (and their parents) to lie. It is easy to pretend read and then coerce a quick signature from a parent onto a paper so that “evidence” of reading can be delivered and reading progress duly noted. While one week a busy parent might fall for this scheme, when it recurs week after week the child comes to believe that honesty is overrated and that success on a wall is far more important. Ask just about any child about a similar reading set and I bet you will receive the honest answer about not having actually read with myriad reasons why not to follow and justify this untruthful behavior.
Working with eighth graders for many years we usually completed a unit on moral development. Adolescents are very curious about lies and deceit, honesty, and truth and how these grow or do not grow over time. They wonder why little liars become big liars, why little criminal peers later end up in jail. Their examination of right and wrong is generally straightforward and pure – not all of course as some really do have a criminal mindset at a tender age, usually fostered by examples from home. Inevitably these students explain cheating as copying but then they wander from my definition of copying. They explain with complete honesty of heart that copying an English assignment is wrong as that is stealing words but that copying a math assignment is just fine as that is only numbers. Regardless of background information I shared or worked to explain, they would not budge. Cheating had multiple levels and degrees of intensity and reasons for doing it or not doing it. Every year I expected a moral shift to cheating as cheating but it never occurred.
From the math cheating (or not cheating, depending on your definition), we moved to traffic signals. I am sure you are familiar with the story of the stop sign in the middle of nowhere. While crossing a deserted section of the country, you come to a four-way intersection with stop signs. With the area flat and unobstructed views in all directions, do you have an obligation to stop and obey the sign even though it is unnecessary and seemingly silly or do you drive on through, ignoring the sign because it appears to be useless? Is there a moral responsibility to obey the law even when it seems to be senseless and unwarranted? You can only imagine the lively discussion and explanations. While the thrill of each class’s responses cannot be replicated to share here, I encourage you to find a group of adolescents and engage in this conversation. A mind-awakening for all is definitely in store.
Are kids of today morally stunted? Do they care less about other humans and animals than generations of the past? Are we unwittingly creating a self-centered society where “me” counts for more than “we”? I guess if you watch advertisement and political wrangling you realize that these are the examples we are setting, where disinformation is more highly valued than the truth. It becomes evident that our example of honesty and sincerity must come into play if we really want to assure ourselves of morally strong adults in the future.